Environment Secretary Owen Paterson speaks at the Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband calls Cameron out on the Tory climate change deniers

By forcing Cameron to reaffirm his green credentials, the Labour leader skillfully drove a wedge between the PM and his party.

In response to recent events such as Typhoon Haiyan and the floods in Britain, David Cameron has affirmed his belief that man-made climate change is a threat that must be tackled. He said during his trip to Sri Lanka last year: "Scientists are giving us a very certain message. Even if you're less certain than the scientists it makes sense to act both in terms of trying to prevent and mitigate." But a significant number in Cameron's party, including, remarkably the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and the Energy minister Michael Fallon, take the reverse view, continuing to question the existence of anthropogenic climate change at all. Fallon has described climate change as "theology", while Paterson has declared: "People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries." (The 12 warmest years have all come in the last 15.)

At today's PMQs, Ed Miliband seized on this divide. After asking Cameron to confirm his position on climate change ("one of the most serious threats," replied the PM), he quoted Paterson and Fallon's sceptical comments and demanded to know whether Cameron was "happy to have climate change deniers in his government". In response, Cameron simply ignored the question and quipped that he was pleased Miliband's "new approach" included praising his stance on climate change. Miliband's well-delivered reply was that he had "gone from thinking it was a basic part of his credo to it being a matter of individual conscience". He ended: "If we’re to properly protect the British people against the threats they face, we cannot have doubt and confusion in his government on the issue of climate change. Doesn’t he need to rediscover the courage of his past convictions and tell his party to get real on climate change?”

To this, Cameron responded by listing the policies the coalition has introduced in this area, including "the Green Investment Bank, the cuts in carbon, the investment in renewables, the investment in nuclear", and declared: "he talks a good game but he actually didn't achieve anything when he was in office". Given that Miliband was the Energy and Climate Change Secretary who passed the Climate Change Act (mandating an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050) the last comment was particularly inappropriate and Cameron's other remarks show why this was a smart line of attack. By forcing the Cameron to brandish his green credentials, Miliband is driving a wedge between him and the climate change deniers in his party.  Few Tories will have enjoyed being reminded of the Lib Dem-friendly measures he listed. The PM's refusal to acknowledge the chasm between his views and those of many Tories also allows Miliband to present him as a "weak" leader, unable to enforce collective responsibility in his government.

Earlier in the session, Miliband challenged Cameron to correct his claim that flood defence spending had increased since 2010 after the UK Statistics Authority confirmed that it had fallen (in both real and nominal terms). In defiance of the nation's senior number crunchers, Cameron continued to insist that it had risen, but only by ignoring inflation and by including non-government spending (as Miliband noted). In a sure sign that he was losing the argument, Cameron resorted to the age-old charge that the opposition leader was dividing the country and had "misjudged the mood". It was a line of attack reminsicent of those deployed by Gordon Brown at his weakest moments during the recession. Cameron appeared both evasive and arrogant. The abiding impression was of a man whose words, on climate change and flood defences, cannot be trusted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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